Cult Column: Halloween (1978)

After 40 years and over 10 follow-ups, the world keeps coming back to the night he came home. John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece Halloween has been succeeded by almost a dozen sequels, remakes and reboots now, but not one has yet achieved anywhere close to the longevity, cultural permeation and near-universal adoration the 1978 original has. There’s a reason Halloween kick-started what we consider the modern horror genre, and there’s a reason we keep coming back to it; on its 40th anniversary, Halloween has stalked its way back into cinemas to prove to us what that reason is.

Perhaps the biggest strength Halloween has on its side, which may be surprising for those looking back on it, is its sheer simplicity. From its editing to its blocking, and even its scares, almost everything about the film is basic and understated. There’s no pretension, no attempt at a higher meaning or commentary on life, just an artfully crafted thrill-ride that seeks to do little else than captivate its audience. Its simplicity likely comes from the fact that Carpenter wrote, directed and scored the entire film for a little over half a million dollars, and in less than a month, but none of that prevented it from becoming the most profitable independent film in history at the time.

From its classic opening POV-shot of the Myers murder, the film-making maintains the same calm, unsettling methodology of its killer right through to the end, never overindulging or overreaching in terms of style. The entire film is captured in wide, lengthy steady-cam shots that linger for just a tad too long, leaving the viewer on edge, placing them in the same twisted, voyeuristic vantage points of The Shape as he materialises in and out of frame.

On the absolute other end from subtlety, Carpenter’s iconic score for the film is anything but restrained. One of horror’s classic soundtracks, and really one of cinema’s most recognisable themes; from its opening credits sequence, Halloween’s score is the perfect companion piece to the picture. The short synthesizer ‘stings’ every time Myers appears set the audience on edge, and the slow build-up to the (frustratingly catchy) main theme is one of the best examples of tension-building film has to offer.

The killer is credited only as ‘The Shape’, with none of the frills or backstory the sequels would tack onto him — a silent force of nature with not a word of dialogue through the film; the personification of death. Halloween was the starting point of today’s ‘slasher’ subgenre and took the entire horror genre to new heights with the first of a new era of iconic and beloved villains in Michael Myers. Carpenter somehow managed to create one of horror’s most terrifying symbols through a simple mechanic’s jumpsuit and a poorly-painted William Shatner mask from a discount Halloween shop, an expressionless gaze with “the blackest eyes… the devil’s eyes”.

Myers, of course, isn’t the only star of the show, he’s joined by an equally iconic pair of protagonists; Jamie Lee Curtis in her first film role as Laurie Strode, and Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Sam Loomis. Laurie set the archetype for the genre’s often-maligned ‘final girl’, and indeed many of the tropes of horror and slashers can elicit some eye-rolls and sighs at the film upon viewing today, but it’s important to remember that these tropes were established and created by Halloween. The initial scares, the slow build, the mounting body-count and the intense final showdown with the sole survivor only became mainstays in horror cinema because of this film, and in many ways it perfected them.

By the time the credits roll, it becomes apparent why this year’s puzzlingly titled Halloween has once again hit ‘reset’ on the series timeline to posit itself as the only sequel to the original. As Michael dissipates into the shadows of Haddonfield one final time on that fateful Halloween night, we’re left with a series of slow, lingering shots of the sleepy suburb’s halls, doorways and houses, accompanied only by Carpenter’s building score and the laboured breathing of a very much still-living Michael Myers; reminding us that evil is everywhere, and assuring us of only one thing — he will return.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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